Nothing will be allowed to block the imminent transfer of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said Tuesday.
Even if Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court rules in favor of Milosevic and declares that a new decree aimed at providing a legal basis for such a hand-over is unconstitutional, authorities will fulfill an obligation under international law to turn him over to the tribunal, Djindjic said.
As the head of government in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Djindjic is widely seen as the most powerful political leader in the country and one who has the ability to simply send Milosevic to the tribunal if he chooses to issue that order.
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica--a rival to Djindjic within the ruling democratic coalition that took power after Milosevic's ouster in October--said at a news conference Tuesday that the decree on cooperation with The Hague, issued by the Yugoslav Cabinet on Saturday, is not the best solution but is better than nothing.
"Even that decree, which constitutes some sort of legality, still has an advantage over a situation of lawlessness," Kostunica said, adding that he does not have the power to block its implementation. The decree was issued after pro-democracy forces failed to win enough support in the Yugoslav parliament to pass a law on cooperation with the tribunal.
Both Djindjic and lawyers for Milosevic indicated Tuesday that it seems likely the former president will be sent to The Hague next week.
Milosevic's legal team has filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court seeking an immediate order banning enforcement of the decree and a subsequent ruling to declare it unconstitutional.
The country's constitution bans extradition of Yugoslav citizens, but Western governments and officials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia argue that, because the U.N. court is not a country, sending suspects to it does not constitute extradition. They also argue that U.N. membership creates an obligation to cooperate with the tribunal. Djindjic's statement Tuesday basically amounted to agreement with this position.
Milosevic, who was indicted by the tribunal in 1999 for crimes against humanity in connection with his troops' brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, is being held in a Belgrade prison on domestic charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Reformers in the Yugoslav and Serbian governments have been trying to meet a U.S. demand that Yugoslavia show cooperation with the tribunal as a condition of American participation in a donors conference set to open Friday in Brussels.
Officials in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, hope the conference will approve about $1.2 billion in aid, roughly half from the United States. They also hope the conference will initiate steps toward forgiving a large portion of the country's $12-billion debt and restructuring payments on the rest of it.
"The issue here is blackmail--economic blackmail of our country on the eve of the donors conference," said Veselin Cerovic, one of Milosevic's lawyers.
U.S. May Participate in Donors Conference
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher implied Tuesday that the steps taken in Belgrade may be sufficient to win U.S. participation in the donors conference.
"We welcome the Yugoslav decree on cooperation with the tribunal," Boucher said. "We welcome the initiation of legal proceedings against Milosevic pursuant to this decree. We're encouraged by these positive developments as we consider participating in Friday's donors conference."
Boucher added that while a recommendation on whether to participate had not yet been sent to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the moves in Belgrade will "weigh heavily" on the decision.
In the Yugoslav capital, a Western diplomat who requested anonymity said, "Djindjic and his people are really determined to have Milosevic in The Hague" within "a couple of weeks."
"It's going to work out," he said.
Djindjic has sacrificed political popularity by pushing so hard against domestic opposition, and Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, who took the lead in pressing for passage of the decree, "is getting death threats," the diplomat added. "Labus now has police protection around him."
In these circumstances, the international community "should be very supportive of the folks who are making this happen," he said. If the U.S. fails to attend the donors conference and Yugoslavia fails to get the financial support it needs, "one of the major rationales for doing this hasn't been successful."
About 4,000 Milosevic supporters, including many bused in from other cities, rallied in Belgrade's central square Tuesday in a protest organized by his Socialist Party of Serbia, then marched to the Federation Palace where Kostunica has his office. Speakers and the crowd heaped venom on Djindjic, Kostunica, the United States and Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the U.N. tribunal.
Leaders Likened to Well-Known Traitor
Sending Milosevic to The Hague will mean that "the whole Serbian nation" will be on trial, Socialist Party Vice President Branislav Ivkovic told the crowd.
Another speaker likened Djindjic and Labus to a famous traitor who killed a Serbian king in the early 19th century.
Dmitar Segrt, another prominent Socialist Party member, said Labus "decided to be Vuk Brankovic"--another vilified Serbian figure, who, according to legend, failed to show up at the battle for Kosovo in 1389, leading to Serbia's defeat and 500 years of Turkish subjugation.
"No politburo can change the constitution and extradite and betray any citizen of Yugoslavia," Socialist Party General Secretary Zoran Andjelkovic said. "Whoever does that is an ordinary thief and traitor. Serbian citizens are not merchandise to be sold for money."
Though his supporters have frequently blasted the country's new leaders for planning to "sell" Milosevic in return for aid, recent polls show that nearly half of all respondents support sending the former president to The Hague.
"In a strange sort of way, it's more acceptable [to the general public] to be sending him because you need financial assistance than because he did war crimes," the Western diplomat commented, noting that many Serbs still deny that their wartime leader was responsible for any atrocities.
Times special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.